Being Beta

Exercises in the higher banter with One of 26. Elsewhere called 'poet of adland'. By a whipple-squeezer. Find out why being beta is the new alpha: betarish at googlemail dot com

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Common times

Or, a review from Saturday's Thunderer. Also below:


ed. Simmons, Williams, Rich

Cyan, £10

Readers travelling hopefully along the literary heritage trail in search of writers may sometimes arrive in places where they’d really rather not be and from which the literary spirit has long departed. Nevertheless, 26 scribblers were invited by the editors of this anthology to visit a BritLit place of their choice and write about the common ground they share with another writer. They didn’t all connect with dead, high-tone authors: here, too, are living punk-rock lyricists in Essex, modernists on the M40, surrealists in Swindon and an enchanter in Cheshire. Good fun.

Fiction: Model F

It is important, Father always said, to do things right. So every Sunday it was the same. Wing collar up, starched the previous night. Black narrow tie, single knot. And always the same deep look of concentration; or maybe that was just what happened when you peer into too small a mirror.
Mother took less fuss – ready in a trice, and only fiddling with a lapel. She could have easily turned and taken the cover off the jalopy, but she knew her place. And handling vehicles wasn’t it.

When they’d got ready, and got the car ready, and got their prayers ready, I’d back away from the disappearing wheels, and stretch out, and then look to see what I could do. Sometimes I’d take the washing in. Or I’d try to hurdle the line. Or I’d try to look in the mirror the same as Father did and try to see what he saw. Sometimes I saw him. Sometimes I saw me.

Once Mother tried to make me go with them. Said it wasn’t Christian to be idling on a Sunday. I said that if the Lord hadn’t shown himself to me now, then it was no use forcing it. Because that would be a lie. And that would be a sin. She never asked again.

It had rattled and clunked and wheezed as it made an unsteady way up the path. ’32, Model F; it had seen better days. But Father was beaming as he swung the door open with deliberate care, resting one foot on the running board before stepping down.

He’d always wanted something better than the trucks and the tractors we already had, something that showed, “Well, we’re just as good as every other family here.”

And boy did it do that. His pride became my pride, as I scraped and sanded, spit and polished, loosening and tightening,
loving as only a young man does, until it became a she, and she purred and gleamed as good as new. In her Sunday best, ready to be driven.

Her hand lingered over the knot. She was trying to find, what? Some looseness? A hole where his soul had come back in? Maybe it was the one thing of his that she couldn’t bear to part with.

In the way of the town, he had lain in our front parlour for days, as all and sundry, and those we didn’t know, came to say how sorry they were to Mother, and how he had been a good man, the best sort of man. And then they always looked at me and said, “And well, ain’t you got a lot to live up to boy?”

And I’d nod, and try to keep my face straight. Because that’s what the man of the house had to do. Take pride in what’s been said, but not be boastful. And because if I smiled it’d look like I was liking Father not being there any more.

But I knew that I could start to be a man now, nobody’s boy any more.

Friday, September 22, 2006

My new favourite things

1. Printing minicards from Flickr, thanks to the clever chaps at Moo. Especially good is the tone of voice: the CTO is tech support, the confirmation email comes from Little Moo. And the printer is of course Big Moo. If you've got a Flickr account you can get some minicards gratis, but hurry, as I think the offer ends at the end of September.

2. The Mechanics Institute Review, the new writing journal peopled by those on the Birkbeck creative writing course(s).

3. Recieve an email from yourself in the future, thanks to Futureme. A lovely new spin on those letters that may or may not ever get sent.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Jewels from the comment box (2)

A few weeks ago, Heather at Skipping Stones posted this:

Maybe I should start thinking about myself, being selfish and not really giving a shit about anyone else but me. Because as far as I can see it seems to be working out fine for everyone else. I grew up being taught to always put myself in someone else's shoes and so far in life I have been cursed to do that all the time and almost everyday. The catch to that lesson was that not everyone else does that and it hurts more than anything when they don't. Right now it feels like my whole life is falling apart, not just at home where I can feel it most, but here at school in my closest group of friends where I would go to escape everything. Now I have no where to run and few people I feel like I can trust. Betrayal is the most painful.

I responded as below:

And for a while that's true, and you think, right, damn the world, I'll play it your way, and become as selfish, self-absorbed and monomanical as the rest of them.

And for a while that's fine, until one day something happens. Which it turns out that only someone else can fix. Except that you probably drove them away in your damn the world anger.

Keeping an open mind is hard; keeping an open heart is harder still. But worth it because the riches you offer are generally payed back tenfold.

An example. Nine years ago now, I was involved in a bizarre love triangle with a girl, and my best friend. She picked him, and I thought my world would end. And for a while it did, and it felt (and I reacted) like I was grieving, physically so; at her, at him, at his *betrayal*.

But what I came to recognise was that it had hurt him to hurt me. And that in acting like he had, well, he'd found a spot of happiness of his own, at a time when his life wasn't so good. And what sort of friend would I be if I objected to that?

Martyr-ish yes, but not for nothing is there some dignity in noble suffering, and not falling to their level (I only realised this once I had fallen to their levels, but these were in truth more the lashings out of an emotionally-drowning man.)

And the proof that this method ultimately works? He's still my friend. Separated by time and space now, but still he's there. I bought him a beer in New York last week, and it felt like forever, like everything had happened between us, and nothing had happened between us.

And that depth only comes if you keep holding on to the hope and idea that to help yourself you have to help others to.

More perspectives: you celebrate a holiday this weekend, where the work and the sacrifices of others are explicitly recognised. People work for selfish reasons, but the pooling of their efforts benefit us collectively.

And consider this, from a profile of Andre Agassi in one of the British papers this weekend. He was a champion, but a selfish one, a paragon of image over substance. And then he decided to remake himself as a man. Here's why:

"When you start out on the journey you think it's all about taking in experiences to fulfil yourself. But it's not. The greatest experience is changing someone else's experience of life. And once you realise that, it becomes your foundation, the ace in your pocket, who you are. It's the opposite of what you think it is. When you see the world through the lens of others, that's when you find yourself."

Which you can only do if you matter to somebody. And you only matter to somebody if you put them above yourself.

Be open, and the world will open itself up to you.

Happy Labor Day.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Moments of zen

Saturday 16 September 2006

"Everyone's good. Hope you're feeling really zen and having a lovely weekend xx"

1. Walking past the newly redeveloped (and yes, soulless, characterless) Spitalfields, Wilco's Radio Cure came on the iPod, and it seemed an apposite summary of what had been lost: cleanliness and brightness had won out again, and it was wrong.

2. Moments later, crossing Commerical Road, George Galloway (and attractive dark haired lady in passenger seat) pulled up in a red Mercedes convertable, E series (I think), C reg plate. Those libel victories just keep on giving.


4. Crossing Consort Road at the slight bend, to be greeted by the sight of a queue almost 100 long to see No 15 and 1/2 as part of Open House weekend. Apart from the instinctive peel of laughter that followed (I was there as M had been allocated that when she volunteered the week before), two thoughst sprang to mind: a) the way to get people to see contemporary architecture is quite simple - just make sure that there's been a prominent sunday supplement style sheet spread the previous weekend; b) Open House is almost the perfect form of recreation for the English, combining as it does walking, queuing, snooping and property.

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Monday, September 18, 2006

Capsule: Dylan Moran, Hammersmith Apollo

In the midst of a short, over-priced, phoned-in performance, there was a body in BB23 that was clammy, nervy, a body that was seizing up with pinpricks all over, beyond exhaustion, when one foot in front of the other involves engaging a brain that won't be engaged any more, dimmed by the dull ache and hysterical over-perception that a lack of sleep brings; too weary to support a head, all hypochondriac kinks ablaze, believing that the fatal bout of ME/MS/cancer will kick in, and yup, this is it, now, allied to the panic that you will never sleep again, and then equally as suddenly, the realisation that you have to get out of BB23 nownownow, to at least defeat the exhaustion by lying down in Queen Caroline Street outside and fuck the traffic-

And then, some of that is lifted by a startlingly poetic turn of phrase. In describing the sensation of listening to German, some sensations in BB23 were defrayed:

"like a typewriter eating tin foil while falling down some stairs"

Metallic beats metallic, to relieve confused skin.

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Tuesday, September 12, 2006


Bobbing, a sea of heads
Rising, up static stairs
Step, a shuffle-step, a quarter-step, Stop.

       And Start.
Me. The mass. Into the damp light
and the freedom of work.

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Friday, September 08, 2006

Capsule: Zaha Hadid

(At the Guggenheim Museum in New York until 25 October 2006)

It is a career-defining retrospective, well-timed after her winning of the Pritzker Prize last year. But it is the oddest things that resonated in Zaha Hadid's show at the Guggenheim. For example, in her specially designed kitchen, the breakfast bar has splashed across it in LED lights:

*** Mac ***
** Lights **
* Aroma *
* Heater *

and I wondered on the irony of an Apple finally making a home for itself in a kitchen.

The exhibition design takes on Frank Lloyd Wright's iconic space well, but clearly she was itching to do more with it, as demonstrated by an animation showing cancerous tendrils issuing from some of the higher rotunda levels. 'Here's what we could have done with this baby,' she implies, wanting to dominate even more of the space(s) available.

The true magic in her architecture has always been about finding these spaces, and in particular the ones that you might not have thought existed, through shaking up your perspective: paintings like extensions and explosions, changes of pace, logic and plane (and there should be a study done about how information is represented in her work).

As an exemplar, look at her 'Vision of Madrid' - it is jaw-dropping: the balance and bias supporting the force of the visual argument. There is only one way in which the city must grow; and the orange, vivid moat given to the city is a barrier to prompt (to encourage; and to encourage quick) movement.

Her refractions of London made me homesick; and are yet thrilling, as they seek to liberate the city from myth. That is, of course, why ultimately they will fail as masterplans. But she is on the money with the idea that the expansion of the city alongside the Thames east won't be enough: London will need to be built on the sea.

The cumulative impact of her work is to give you a 1950s vision of the future vibe - The Jetsons with protractors. And isn't it interesting that, a slight increase in the gaudiness aside, the visual language of the period remains our best incarnation of what the 'future' looks like?

Do not be too downhearted by the recurring motif of the show: 'This project is unbuilt'. She has now achieved fame, impact and foundations being laid... but there's a thought that whispers at you: she was better when this project was unbuilt: more radical, more challenging, more out there. Whereas her finished work, while distinctly hers, have more than passing echoes of Liebeskind, Calatrava and Herzog and de Mouron.

She is not as much her when she is realised: as she has been built, she has become more ordinary.

That said, she is not just creating a new architectural language for theory's sake. Her work has a direct commercial impact too, best shown with her BMW building in Leipzig. This zig-zagged finger of a structure links the blue collar factory parts of the campus with the white collar offices, with the production line whizzing half-built cars above the canteen, where all plant workers eat together. It reinforces the role that architecture and the built environment can have in reinforcing brand and internal cultural change - getting the collars to break bread and engage minds.

If only her buildings are left after us, after everything else has been destroyed, future life/visitors will conclude that intelligence extra-terrestrial to earth, must have been involved in their construction. Aliens with tendrils, bearing Macs.

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Thursday, September 07, 2006

Commercial: Diary of a punctual adopter

After a slight false start (one frozen iPod, which was a wee bit heart-stopping, seeing as the bally thing only made it back over the pond a week ago), I joined the video podcasting classes this week. All hail Newsnight and the BBC for facilitating this, and I only realised that I was displaying signs of uber geekdom when I was walking out from Moorgate while still trying to watch and pick up City AM. My reading on public transport could suffer; however, I could start watching TV again. Maybe this is the way to reach those disappearing 16-25 males who no longer bother with TV. Although I doubt many of them would like Kirsty, the fools.

This gathering slide to barely-acknowledged geekdom has been accelerated by adoption and use of social networking web-browser Flock. Suffice to say it is fab, and could just change the way you use the web. If that doesn't suffice, here's what I sent to them (on the back of an Andreas Gursky postcard - yes, I liked the product so much, I wasted money on foreign snail mail):

So, firstly the postcard: hope you enjoy it.

And now the love: It's been three days for me using Flock now, and you might just have changed my life. I'm coming to think of Flock as a scratchpad for those of us who can't use Illustrator, or aren't yet fully fledged designers. I think you might have helped to pioneer a new verb (or at least job description): to flocksmith (vb) - to create out of aggregating text, images, tags, links etc. I'd say we're more sedate flockstars.

One addition: any chance of integrating IM into the browser?

I reckon I'm too old to post this in a forum, hence the missive to you. I even managed to overcome my fear, and add the relevant button to the blog. And if you ever need a writer (or someone to be your first Flocksmith), you know where to find me.

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Wednesday, September 06, 2006

History: making, repeating, grieving

Making (1)

Common Ground has made it to Guardian Unlimited's Books pages, with a full extract of Ali Smith's piece about Hugh Miller. You can read that here; find out more about the project here; and buy the book here. Did I mention, I received a postcard from Julian Barnes, saying that he enjoyed my piece? That's one way to make a young man's heart develop arrhythmia.

Making (2)

The Universities of Surrey and Exeter are working on a project researching the reactions of shoppers to the arrival of the supermarket in early post-war England. They would like help in answering questions such as: Was this transformation of shopping (from counter service to self service) desirable or inevitable? What part did shoppers play in this transformation? How did shoppers react to new self-service formats? Your help if you were shopping between the years 1945 and 1975 would be particularly appreciated. You can find out how to get involved here.


A few years ago now, I had a Chinese meal at the Golden Dragon restaurant, on the corner of Wardour and Gerrard streets). With a few exceptions, it turned out to be my last, in part because of the subsequent gastroenteritis - two weeks off work, six weeks of feeling ropey, oh my god levels of weight loss. So imagine my surprise to read that today, the said same establishment was fined £22,000 for having cockroaches. And mice. And mouse droppings. And black mould. The question is not whether I believe the protestations of the owners that they have cleaned up their act - Mongol horses would not drag me back in there again. No, the question is, do you believe them?


My work laptop was one of a number stolen from the office this past weekend. I realised today why I have been feeling grumpy and ill-communicative since then. It's because a large chunk of my e-history was on there, and nowhere else. Ideas, praise, celebrations, flirtations, streaks of worry on 7/7, jargon, meetings never had... it's just galling to think that now they'll be lost to the capricious whims of characters to be found in the back rooms of pubs on the Old Kent Room (I assume; and stereotype greatly).

Back-up everything; and use a pen and paper whenever possible.

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Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Tour: Notes from New York

* The sole moment of music/space/time confluence occurred at Stupid O'Clock on Saturday morning, after immigration, while in the cab from JFK into Manhattan. Leaving Queens, and crossing the bridge, the night sky was actually inky light, so it felt like 5am not 2. And as I stared at the Chrysler building (?) from the other side of the expressway, The Wedding Present's 'Go Out And Get 'Em Boy!' came on to the iPod. And for an instant I thought, yes, that is exactly what shall be done here.

* While walking down Lexington, about 57th or so, a church was passed. Gothic in shape and structure, and chocolate in brick and tone. I felt moved enough to want to write a poem, but I still haven't found the words yet.

* It is clearly a lot harder to achieve any form of stillness in New York than London (discounting gridlock, which is enforced). Example: a woman walking beside me down Lexington, who decided that the red man at the junction with 50th street was too much of a wait, and instead crossed over Lex (where the white man was present) to continue her journey down the street. An additional hundred yards for no obvious benefit, apart from the illusion of advantageous movement.

* NyLon: for a moment, around about Bryant Park, I had the hallucination that I was actually in London rather than New York. I had experienced no real culture shock, no real sense that there was anything significantly or qualitatively different between the two. Nonsense of course, and yet a very real sensation, until of course, the realisation of it made it impossible to sustain. Viewing Sweeney Todd at the Eugene O'Neill theatre later on was a similar sense of having a London close to mine, yet different, refracted back at me. This at least was tangible: myths I recognised, violence I recognised, and a stage design that looked liked the latest modish Smithfield/Clerkenwell eaterie.

* In the Barnes and Noble further up (47th?), I found two of Donald Barthelme's books. On the back of Snow White the text had it that he died in 1991.

On the back of The Dead Father this date was 1989.

There was something fitting in there being such confusion around an author as playful as Barthelme.

* I found a life on the subway on Monday - I think I was on the N train down towards Canal Street. Sitting on the advert directly opposite me was a 6 x 4 index card, plain white. Written in biro on it:

Most Positive:
- Trading game
- Lunch w/ presentation (good use of time)
- Marketing activity in group
- Today's activity on personal goals
- The encouragement not to freak out about a/b grades

Negatives/Things to change:
- Add campus/Orib (?) hall four by cluster
- Not enough "significant others" tickets for the Billiards event

In that one card then, the encapsulation of a nation's animating spirit: a student, clearly sharp, looking at where she (and I think it is a she: the colon is made of precise circles) can get better. There is ambiguity here - what are 'personal goals' and how are they different from what is on the card? (Maybe she is on an internship at the moment, at a firm where she really wants to work after graduation, and she's adding value to her role by busying herself with useful activities - the presentation, the marketing activities. And maybe she's been told that her slightly less than 4.0 GPA will be no bar to her joining in a year's time.)

I wanted to put an arm around her, and say, with as much wisdom as one who was there a few years before can muster, "You're on the right track, and you have it in perspective. You'll be fine."

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Monday, September 04, 2006

Jewels from the comment box

First in an irregular series, designed to recapture those bon mots which are thrown away (generally by me) in other places. This first digression, about nationalism in sport, was posted at Girlfriends in high places, which appears to be now dormant; a shame, as far as one can see. The original post first; beta thoughts after.


Thursday, June 15, 2006 Inger-land

Strange, is it not, that domestic football is an international marketplace, with clubs bidding huge amounts of money for the best players, regardless of nationality, colour or creed...And yet when it comes to the World Cup, football becomes an agency of chauvinism, jingoism, xenophobia and even racism. I confess, even I, woolly liberal that I am (it's true, you can ask my friends), am not insulated from this flag-waving mentality. I cheered as much as the next skinhead during England've forgotten who we were'll get there...PARAGUAY! Yes, that's right, sitting in the basement of a rather civilised cafe/bar in Brighton, cabaret-style, watching a big screen whilst munching on superior pizza. Reflecting later after I had recovered from my bout of screaming at the screen and wishing a pox on Paraguay, it occurred to me that football rivalrives do not reflect or represent the manifestation of deeper-held nationalist mentalities. At least not in Britain. I think football creates or constitutes those mentalities, and if we got rid of national football and stuck instead to the global free market of clubs and players, we'd be halfway towards the ideal international society. In the meantime, however, and for this afternoon, GO INGER-LAND!!!!!!


Gosh, no more England vs Germany. It's a nice idea (and one that would be whole-heartedly embraced by the G14 group of leading clubs, who detest the imposition that interntaional football places on 'their' assets.)

But there are some dangers:

1) despite appearances, international football provides more of a level-playing field than club football. The expansion of the World Cup has shown this - at least countries such as Ghana have a chance of competing and performing creditably on the highest stage. Their club equivalent in terms of both status and income would struggle to have the same impact, or even qualify for regional club championship.

2) The Abramovich effect: rich men are yet to be able to buy whole national football associations. Now, we can't rule it out, but for now, in some senses, a 'purer', slightly less commercial form of the game can be found at international level.

3) Players don't just play for obscene amounts of money, well-tressed WAGS or their own competitive drive. The promise of an international call up is a great motivator.

4) Clubs are not above being associated with nationalistic stereotypes: 'Chelski' for one. More importantly, clubs can and have been some latent hotbeds of far right thuggery, across Europe. Doing away with internationals won't do away with xenophobic (or worse) outbursts, as spending a match with Lazio's Ultras will attest.

And generally, international football doesn't ferment these tense geo-political relations. Scotland and England were antagonistic well after the Act of Union and well before the invention of Association Football.

Does it exacerbate them? Possibly. No doubt modern Germany's poor image in the UK is in part due to the 'ruthless efficiency' in which it has defeated England over the last fifty years. But then maybe World War II still hangs too closely over England as well.

The weekend's events at the Oval suggest that in other sports stereotypes attach themselves to teams from certain countries, and are hard to shift.

But most importantly, we wouldn't have those fetching international caps for football players. And then where will be?

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Sunday, September 03, 2006

Game-changing words

From a profile of Andre Agassi in today's Observer Sports Monthly, which retells how a champion remade himself as a man. It's a heart-stopping insight:

When you start out on the journey you think it's all about taking in experiences to fulfil yourself. But it's not. The greatest experience is changing someone else's experience of life. And once you realise that, it becomes your foundation, the ace in your pocket, who you are. It's the opposite of what you think it is. When you see the world through the lens of others, that's when you find yourself.

Guardian Unlimited Sport | Tennis | How to be good (part two)

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Saturday, September 02, 2006

Banging a common drum

Latest 26 news:

1. This month's recommendations are to be found here.

2. We had the launch for 'Common Ground' at The Globe on Thursday night, which was a great success (jetlag permitting). Neil and others read beautifully from other chapters, and the list of titles and contributors that John recited was almost a form of blank poetry. The Arts Council have also stumped up some funding, so there will be a Metroland event somewhere near you soon...

The book is available through Amazon, and you can find more details about it here.